Abiodun Henderson, the creator and owner of Gangstas to Growers and The Come Up Project, a community organizing group that focuses on empowering and changing the lives of youths in the Atlanta city area through community gardening and entrepreneurship, stops mid-sentence to admire a passing car.
“Sorry, no, no, this person got a low rider … Chevy, baby blue … ’61 Impala. I got goosebumps! Anyway … ” she adds, laughing before returning to the conversation.
This small aside is not the first or the last during the conversation, and that is for a very specific reason: Henderson is on the move.
During the interview, she is simultaneously buying and unloading groceries, talking to a volunteer, or directing a youth or coworker. The New York native laughs a bit as she explains a little of her thinking, or what she calls just the way she is wired, that keeps her always moving.
“My people that, you know, love me and know me, and also farmers and organizers are like: ‘you gotta stop moving like this, like, get the money first.’ You know, that’s why people say, ‘I want to start a nonprofit’ because they’re like, ‘I need to get all the money first, and then we’re gonna move from there,’” she said. “Me, I’m like, we’re gonna do this work hook or crook, and the money gonna come! Because the work is very, very important.”
The child of a Liberian-born professor of child psychology mother and a former Black Panther father in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, Henderson comes by her passion and commitment to better her community honestly.
After a stint in New Orleans, Henderson settled in Atlanta in 2004. By her own words, she “wasn’t doing [expletive]” for a few years until around 2011, when the Occupy The Hood movement lit a fire in her.
“When the Occupy movement came around in 2011, I ended up meeting a brother from Occupy The Hood and started rocking Occupy in 2012. And it was like, creating programs in the community. So another sister from Occupy in Philly, she moved in with me,” she said. “And we were just organizing the community, you know, started a garden on our block, which led to me getting trained at Truly Living Well [an Atlanta-based community for natural urban agriculture] on how to grow food. So I got trained, I took over the community garden, did a camp for three years in a row.”
After a few years of volunteering, Henderson’s work took on a different path in 2016. “In 2016, realizing that folks didn’t have [access to] Black farmers, you know, now that I was part of that community, they didn’t have labor, you know, on these farms,” she said. “But we wanted to have a food system within the schools, and folks who are getting paid well, and thinking about how we ran the camp [in her previous volunteer work] with all the different workshops that were impactful for the campers, you know. I developed Gangstas to Growers.”
Henderson’s program, which helps pull youths out of street gangs and into healthier, more purposeful lifestyles, has a simple yet powerful mission. From its website: “The mission is to end the cycle of poverty within our community, to provide a space of healing, to help support a black-run food system, and to end recidivism.”
With just a little seed money, “a measly $10,000,” she laughs, and a vision, Gangstas to Growers was off and running. It started in community gardening and then developed hot sauce, all sourced by Black farmers inside their communities.
From 2016 to the present, Gangstas to Growers has expanded at a pretty impressive clip, thanks to Henderson’s indomitable will and drive. Community gardening, a hot sauce recipe, manufacturing classes, and yoga and music lessons are all available to the youth on a paid-for-work basis, which Henderson makes sure to point out. The fact that her campers earn for their work is essential to their self-worth, plus it keeps them invested in the program and their positions as community members.
Parenting and natural cooking classes, conflict resolution, Black history lessons, and even herbal home remedies for medical care are some of the organization’s growing lists of opportunities. As she unspools her heart and desire for her community, one gets the feeling that Henderson is changing the world in real-time. And she’s just getting started.